Italy, November 28, 2014
For almost a week we’ve been in Switzerland, riding first class trains through heritage cities, art cities, historic viaducts and tunnels, alpine glaciers, and mountain resorts. In every case, the conductors greet us soon after departure, check our tickets, and make sure we know where to disembark or change for our continued journey.
Now, an hour and a half from Tirano, Italy, in this crazy car on the 13:06 to Milan, no one cares to check our passes. We’ve crossed the border from Switzerland, had a traditional Italian lunch near the station, and walked to the other train station just across the street to transfer to Trenitalia.
Royal blue seats and matching curtains can’t detract from the gauzy windows. They’re all closed, all dirty, and all looking out to gray fog and rain. Leaving Tirano for Milan, I find myself searching for an escape route from this train. Right on the glass, above the no-smoking symbol and below the Aira Condizionata sign, the lettering says, “For maximum comfort, you are asked to please keep the windows closed.”
I try to open the window anyway, but the latch had been removed. This car is hot, paneled in gray, and lit with bleak fluorescent light strips. There’s no thermostat in the car, but one window has been opened somehow, providing welcome fresh air to counter the maximum discomfort heating.
Next to the open window, a lone gentleman talks on his phone. Italian, of course, but worthy of my attention since I’ve just crossed the border from Switzerland where I was just beginning to catch phrases in French and German. Dredging up a few Italian words, I try to eavesdrop as he goes on and on, past one stop and another. Finally I hear, in Italian, ‘OK, call me later.’ He hurriedly disembarks after wrestling the coach door with a push, not a pull. Everybody does that, going in and out.
When I’m settled I hear the other voice, a running conversation, probably also on a mobile phone. Then I realize there’s no phone. This talker is also middle aged, not old and demented but just a little disheveled looking. He’s chatting away, to himself. Occasionally he gets up and paces, or uses the bathroom.
Out the window, the clouds mask everything except the first row of houses. In the country, a farm, a muddy field. On the edges of towns, front-end loaders, heavy machinery, abandoned barns and warehouses. A pile of garbage, maybe accompanied by plans for hauling away. It’s wet. A car overtakes us on the parallel road. A glimpse of mountain outline, a snow-highlighted edge up in the clouds, glimmers through. This valley has walls, apparently. Then all is gray.
Even in fog and white-out conditions in Switzerland, the scenery was somehow uplifting. Now past 16:00, someone slams the window shut. I smell a cigarette. A couple in their 40s board the train. Cozy, or professionally familiar, they work together on a laptop. He offers a glance then a bemused smile at the crazy fellow carrying on his conversation with himself.
Eventually, I get up to use the bathroom. The floor is all wet, there’s no water for flushing, no sink water, and no lock on the door. We’re not in Switzerland anymore. I wonder about cutbacks and lay-offs as I return to my seat. The train’s garbage collector passes by a second time. Still no conductor.
The cloud we’re in mops up the dusk. The near green fields grow grayer. A lake blends into the cloud gray, and the outlines of mountains shift from two or three layers to none, a pixelated curtain of gray. The female professional departs; her male counterpart pauses for several minutes before reaching for his phone.
The lake water on our right changes to purple gray, hinting at a better view on brighter days. The natural beauty of the high mountains is replaced by suburbs, shacks, concrete office buildings and construction materials. Maybe there’s a plan for these vacant lots and fields, or maybe that’s just crazy talk on the 13:06 to Milan.